CHICAGO – The documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” tells the story of a Mexican-American musician who in the 1970s recorded two albums that did not have much success in the United States, but which made their way to South Africa, where the songs inspired whites opposed to apartheid.
The documentary by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul is currently showing in several cities around the country after being screened in January at the Sundance Festival.
The film tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, the son of Mexican parents who had emigrated to Detroit to work in the auto industry.
Rodriguez, who liked to play and sing in folk music bars, recorded a single in 1967 that enabled him to sign a contract with the Sussex record company, for which he produced two albums: “Cold Fact” (1970) and “Coming From Reality” (1971).
Despite rave reviews, his albums sold only marginally in the United States and Sixto, who performs and records as Rodriguez, returned to obscurity.
But in Australia and South Africa, first on bootleg recordings and later on re-editions, they came to be in great demand.
Rodriguez’s music, which speaks about the problems of the disadvantaged, resonated with young white South Africans who opposed apartheid.
Amid rumors that a despondent Rodriguez had committed suicide, two devoted South African fans, Steven Segerman and Craig Strydom, set out in the late 1990s to find out what happened to their idol.
In 1998, the South Africans found Rodriguez living in Detroit and since then, fame has returned to knock on his door, beginning with a triumphant concert tour of South Africa.
The press has been fascinated with the incredible story that reminds one that nobody is a prophet in their own land.
“When I was writing those songs, it seemed like a revolution was coming in America,” Rodriguez told Time magazine recently. “Young men were burning their draft cards, the cities were ablaze with anger.”
In Rodriguez’s case, Gerardo Cardenas, the editorial director of Contratiempo magazine in Chicago, told Efe, is similar to that of many blues musicians who have lived in obscurity only to be “discovered” when a white artist makes a recording of one of their songs.
Such is the case of blues legend Robert Johnson (1911-1938), who did not become famous until The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton made covers of his songs in the 1960s.
“Sixto’s case is not a unique case, and the fact is that it’s going to keep happening,” said Cardenas. “At times it’s racism, at times it’s isolation by the person himself and at times it’s luck,” he said. EFE